When was the last time you got a letter? I got one last week. I walked to the mailbox, my heart thumping, to see if it had finally arrived. I opened the mailbox, and there it sat. I could hardly keep from tearing the envelope's seal before I made it back to my room. I opened it quickly and began to read, treasuring each word from my pen pal, who lives more than 2,000 miles away.
You may be wondering: What's a pen pal? Don't worry. My 7-year-old brother had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him if he had one. Neither did my 14-year-old sister.
A pen pal is someone you regularly write letters to, and he or she writes back. It's a long-distance friendship that can be fascinating – plus there is the thrill of peeking into the mailbox to find a letter from your far-away friend.
Pen pals have been around since the time our grandparents were young. The Monitor even had its own pen-pal program that started in 1928 and lasted until 1969. Many people who found pen pals through the column enjoyed sharing their lives and making friends with people across the world.
But it seems that by the time you and I were born, having a pen pal wasn't as popular. But there are still people just like us who enjoy sending and receiving mail from pen pals today. The letters are mementos to save in a shoebox or put up on your wall. There is a sense of adventure and magic to them.
In early June, just before school let out for the summer, sixth-graders at a school in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, got a special delivery. More than 100 pen-pal letters had traveled over land and sea all the way from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in Africa. They arrived at the Bay Academy for the Arts and Sciences more than six months after the students had sent their own pen-pal letters to kids at St. Dominic's Primary School.
"This is a wonderful way to make a friend and maybe someday meet that friend," says Ellen Green, assistant principal at the Bay Academy. "It's an exciting situation, an exciting thought to get to know someone your age who lives very far away and in a very different culture."
Finding a pen pal
If you are interested in getting a pen pal for yourself, start out by telling a grown-up that you are interested. There are all sorts of people you can be pen pals with, and there are different ways to find them.
• You can search together with a grown-up on the Internet to find an organization that is safe and trustworthy. Most pen-pal organizations require your mom or dad's permission for you to get started.
• If you have a friend, grandparent, or maybe a cousin who lives in another city, see if he or she would like to be your pen pal. Pen pals can be people you already know as well as someone you've never met before.
• Write to someone who is serving overseas in the military. Your support could make that person's days brighter.
• You can ask your teacher to arrange a pen pal exchange with another classroom in another city, state, or even another country – maybe a country you are studying.
So, what do you talk about with a pen pal? You may feel that you don't know what to say in your first letter, or even in your second. Start by introducing yourself and telling your pen pal about your family, your pet, or your interests. Here are some more ideas:
• You can compare the differences and similarities of the places where you each live, things to do there, the weather, and cool places to visit. The sixth-graders at the Bay Academy quickly wrote back to their pen pals, and Ms. Green says the class is even making a scrapbook with pictures of themselves, information about New York City, personal letters, and other information they think their pen pals might like to learn about their lives.
• Remember, sometimes you and your pen pal won't have all the same interests as you. While you might be a fan of alternative music, snowboarding, and steak for dinner, your new long-distance friend may be a vegetarian who prefers video games and soccer. Ask what your pen pal enjoys about these things. You can learn a lot from your differences. Maybe you could each try something that the other likes. Who knows, you might find out that you like it, too.
• You and your pen pal might choose a book to read together. You can discuss your opinion of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" or dive into a classic like "A Wrinkle in Time," by Madeleine L'Engle. The options are endless.
• Sometimes two pen pals speak different native languages, so their letter writing helps one or both of them learn the other person's language.
• If your pen pal is in a different country, explore what life is like for him or her. For example, many kids in Zimbabwe have never heard of things that are part of everyday life for Americans, says Sheri Saltzberg, cofounder of the US-Africa Children's Fellowship, the organization that arranged the pen pal relationship between the Bay Academy and St. Dominic's school. She says that many of these children have never heard of electricity, TV, or even pizza. This might be hard to imagine, but consider Zimbabweans' point of view: They may find it a bit strange that most Americans don't know what is, and that's a food many of them eat all the time. (Sadza is a cooked porridge, usually made from a type of cornmeal.)
From pen to keyboard
Much of the world does have electricity, though, and electricity makes using the Internet possible. Now that so many have Web access, you might have noticed that people don't write letters to each other very often. But that doesn't mean they have stopped keeping in touch. "Key pals," who use a computer keyboard and e-mail account instead of a pen and paper, still continue the pen pal tradition today.
E-mail and handwritten letters have different advantages. With e-mail, your pen pal can receive your note almost instantly, and you can attach digital photos. Letters take longer to arrive, but you can include stickers, pictures, or drawings.
A few last words
Maybe you want to know more about what having a pen pal is like before you jump into the experience. If so, there are plenty of books that can give you a taste of different pen pal adventures . Look for them at a bookstore or library.
There are things to remember when communicating with pen pals, especially in the digital age: Make sure to share all letters and e-mails with your parents so they know you are safe. If something seems fishy, stop writing letters. Never meet a pen pal in person unless a grown-up is with you.
And, of course, have fun! Your pen pal could become your new best friend. Or a pen pal relationship could bring you closer to someone you already know. With a pen pal, you can have your own taste of far-away places, someone to share your own discoveries with, and the adventure of opening your mailbox to find a letter in it just for you.